That gutty, gritty Iona defense – as John Sterling might muse.
How good were the Gaels at that “other end” on Sunday at Quinnipiac? Iona shot a miserable 23-73 from the field (31.5%) and posted 0.81 points per possession, both figures the lowest since Tim Cluess became head coach in 2010 ** … and the Gaels won anyway, matching the Bobcats stop for stop and snatching their eighth straight victory (and 13th in 14 games), 60-57 at the TD Bank Sports Center.
“I’m very happy with our defense obviously,” Cluess said. “Offensively, we had a lot to be desired, but it was just one of those games. It was our fifth game in 10 days, and they played really good, physical defense against us. We missed shots we normally make, but we found a way to win on the other end. I think our pressure kind of got us going a little bit. Our defense kind of woke our offense up a little bit in the second half.”
If you’ve followed Iona (21-6, 14-2) closely, this performance, while extreme, is not an outlier in the past few weeks. Like all reputations, the one the Gaels got for being an explosive offensive powerhouse that isn’t terribly interested in defending will be hard to shake, but fortunately we have numbers, the ones that don’t lie.
Here are Iona’s defensive points per possession numbers in its current eight-game win streak (all without Isaiah Williams, who was shooting around before the game but is still a couple of weeks away from returning): 0.96, 0.94, 0.82, 1.22 (a tight win over Siena), 0.97, 0.86, 0.99, and 0.81 Sunday.
And so while you could argue that the MAAC is a poor offensive league (it is), and Iona still ranks 208th nationally and seventh in the MAAC in defensive efficiency, those numbers seem to improve with every outing.
“We’re just trying to lock in, everybody’s focused on defense and taking pride in what they do at that end,” David Laury, who scored 18 points but needed 22 shots to do it. “We know that our shots aren’t going to fall every game and we have to find other ways to win.”
Another number that continues to improve? Iona’s win total. With five games to go, the Gaels continue to stay two games ahead of Rider in the conference standings.
Here are my three thoughts from an Iona rockfight at Quinnipiac:
1. More Schadrac Casimir – Casimir drilled his first three shots, all three-pointers and had 11 early. Quinnipiac did a good job on him from that point on, but with the game tied at 55 and the shot clock running down with 40 seconds to go, Casimir — all 5’9” of him — drove straight at Ousmane Drame and what seemed like the rest of perhaps the best defensive front court in the MAAC. He not only got fouled, but somehow got the ball off the backboard up and in as well for what turned out to be the game-winner. Oh, and Casimir has hit 40 straight free throws and added eight rebounds as well.
“The shot clock was running down and the play had to happen,” Casimir said. “I knew I had to go up and be aggressive and hopefully get the foul call, and the ball went in, too.”
2. Another tough loss for Quinnipiac – If the Bobcats (14-11, 8-8) had won this game it would have been deemed an “upset,” but they were only a 1-point underdog and entered with the third best KenPom rating in the MAAC (behind Iona and Rider). Ousmane Drame did his usual, 16 points and 18 rebounds, but Justin Harris and Chaise Daniels (12 pts, 9 rebs) also made life miserable for Laury, who is usually able to score at ease against MAAC frontcourts. We know about Zaid Hearst’s defensive prowess and he helped force A.J. English into a 6-20 shooting night. Tom Moore talked after Friday’s game about final possessions, and there really wasn’t any way he could have played Casimir’s shot any better. Sometimes you just have to tip your cap.
“I thought that possession played out pretty well,” Moore said. “I thought Ous(mane) did a good job of balancing the shooting and passing all night. He made one turnover where he threw a ball to Chaise a little too hard at a key time, but we can’t ask him to be perfect.”
Again, though, Quinnipiac just couldn’t hit enough shots, finishing 2-19 from behind the arc for an awful 35.1 eFG%. The Bobcats outrebounded the Gaels 57-47, in which the sheer numbers tells you how many missed shots there were in a reasonably quick game (70 possessions). Still, Quinnipiac led 44-38 midway through the second half, but Iona scored at least enough the rest of the way to win it.
“We’ve come a long way since we lost to those guys last month,” Moore said. “I’m proud of that, but it’s a bitter pill to swallow to play so hard and lose so close. We didn’t make enough shots, obviously.”
3. We know the what, but how? – When a team struggles on offense, we can look at shooting, usage, or several other numbers. Defense is a little harder to pinpoint, coaches will almost always mention effort and desire when their team does well and the lack of it when they struggle. For Iona, part of it is likely personnel, although Kelvin Amayo played only 18 minutes Sunday, with Ibn Muhammad getting 27 (and two steals) and Ryden Hines 30 (and nine rebounds). It could be more teams are just shooting poorly against them. Or possibly the scouting is better for teams in conference. Short answer? We don’t know.
At one point, Cluess had a lineup in the first half (with Laury in foul trouble) of Amayo, Muhammad, Casimir, Jeylani Dublin, and and Vengelis Bebis. And they survived.
“That’s the way offense goes,” Cluess said. “Certain days, guys make shots, some days they don’t. For us, a lot of it is our secondary guys, if they’re making shots then things open right up. When they’re not making shots, it’s easy to concentrate on our top players.”
** If you were wondering, the previous low for Iona shooting in the Cluess Era was the 2011 MAAC championship game at Webster Bank Arena when they were 19-59 (32.2%) in a tough 62-57 loss. The previous low for points per possession came in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, 0.82 ppp in a 95-70 loss to Ohio State. Sunday was Tim Cluess’ 163rd game as the Iona head coach (112-51).